Why We Need To Teach Boys About Positive Masculinity

BY BRETT ING

As a current youth facilitator for Next Gen Men and former teacher, one of my main objectives has always been to create a safe space free of judgement. A place where young people feel comfortable and are free to be their authentic selves. 

Why is this a challenge for boys? You might be surprised to discover that school is a place where many boys feel unsafe. They are afraid they won’t live up to the rules of manhood—they won’t be cool enough, popular enough, or tough enough. In Boys: What It Means to Become a Man, Rachel Giese explains:

“Underneath all that is the very real fear of becoming a target. Acting out by bringing another boy’s manliness into question by calling him a homophobic slur, or by harassing and sexualizing a girl with a catcall, is a way to fortify their masculine image.”

The rules of manhood are making our youth feel unsafe, resulting in behaviours associated with an increased risk of substance abuse, suicide, and other mental and physical health problems. According to Kristin Mmari, associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and lead researcher for qualitative research on the Global Early Adolescent Study, these issues can be well-established in kids by the time they are 10 or 11 years old.

The solution, it seems, lies in undefining and redefining what it means to ‘be a man,’ and helping young boys to create their own healthier version of masculinity. 

What does it mean to be a man?

If I asked my 14-year-old self, “What does it mean to be a man?” I probably would have listed qualities such as strength, independence, physical stature, and assertiveness. 

Today, as a 30-year-old who works with ninth-grade boys, my list is quite different. The words and synonyms that come up are courage, integrity, compassion, and humility. My older self now thinks of masculinity as also being able to be vulnerable, to be tender with yourself and to others when needed, and being connected with your feelings and emotions.

Although neither of these definitions are necessarily right or wrong, they do point out that masculinity should not be so narrowly defined if we want to start teaching boys about positive masculinities and what it means to be a man. 

So, what does it mean to be a man? Last year at the MARC Summit by Catalyst (Men Advocating Real Change), Eka Darville, a filmmaker, speaker and intersectional solutioneer, was asked this question and responded by saying: 

“To try and distill what a man is into a single word is a futile effort. There are as many descriptions for what is a man as there are men on the planet Earth.”

I commend my younger self for having part of the picture identified even if it only scratched the surface of masculinity. Our culture is continuing to evolve—as we endeavour to make the world a more inclusive place for people to be their authentic selves.

And while courage, integrity, compassion, and humility are integral traits to me, they may not be the most important values for the boys I work with. My work with the online community NGM Boys Club focuses on supporting boys as they explore and create their own versions of masculinity and what it means to be a man. 

Let’s unpack how we look at positive masculinity.

While taking the Raising Next Gen Men online course, I was prompted to write and reflect on the qualities that have mattered most to me in the male role models in my life. As previously mentioned, the characteristics of courage, integrity, compassion and humility came up several times. 

As I looked at my list and tried to find a common thread, I realized that none of these traits were inherently male or masculine. From there I wondered whether it was necessary at all to categorize traits by gender if they’re not exclusive to any gender at all. In When Boys Become Boys: Development, Relationships, and Masculinity, Carol Gilligan observes that:

“Once human qualities are bifurcated into masculine or feminine, everyone loses. Becoming a man or becoming a woman means burying or silencing parts of oneself.”

At Next Gen Men we sometimes use the term positive masculinity, but it is always used upon the foundation that there is no single, exclusive, right way of expressing or embodying masculinity (hence, masculinities).

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